Feature: Turning disaster into an opportunity for change critical

Cyclone Idai

NATURAL disasters, Cyclone Idai and others included, have tragic consequences, and people with the least resources at hand to rebuild their lives are often left in worse off situations.

The traditional response to disasters is to provide immediate relief, without considering how the process of rebuilding lives and communities can be a positive opportunity for change.

According to social experts, this opportunity can be facilitated in two ways — first, by having a clear understanding that disaster survivors are not victims but agents of change and second, by providing the tools and techniques to facilitate the change process.

“Although disasters always bring tragedy, they also open up an opportunity for change in the affected communities and survivors becoming agents of change”, said Philemon Simwaba, a social worker and disability management specialist, in a recent interview.

(File) Destruction caused by the cyclone Idai in Chimanimani

He said disasters offered a chance to turn a negative and a desperate situation into a possible longer-term positive outcome.

Further, he noted that disaster-affected families can rebuild not only their homes but also their livelihoods, and can be empowered if they have the necessary social linkages to help them recover from the catastrophe.

Another expert Vusumuzi Ndlovu, based in Mutare, said having a clear understanding of the opportunities that arise as a result of a disaster and how to make the most of them through the rebuilding process leads to a greater ability to provide future support and prevention.

“Survivors of disasters should be looked at in a new way, and should not be viewed simply as helpless and dependent victims.

They should be regarded as agents for change in rebuilding their lives and communities.

With the right knowledge and techniques, she said, outsiders could help survivors to harness their energy positively and to empower them through the stages of emergency relief and rehabilitation.

“Development agencies stumble on the ‘how to’ aspect, struggling with the design and use of the support tools that will create a platform to allow this energy to be developed and used”, she said.

“There is much room for improvement in international knowledge about how to intervene in and support the change process in affected communities.

According to the United Nations Development Programme Zimbabwe country office (UNDP-Zimbabwe), Cyclone Idai struck Zimbabwe in March 2019, causing infrastructure  damage worth an estimated US$622 million.

Over 50 000 households were destroyed directly, affecting 270 000 people.

“Up to US$1,1 million was needed to support Zimbabwe’s recovery and restore damaged infrastructure and livelihoods.

The extent of the damage caused by Cyclone Idai in some districts of eastern and south-eastern parts of Zimbabwe was unprecedented.

In April 2019, the World Bank and the government of Zimbabwe, undertook a joint exercise to assess the losses and damage caused by Cyclone Idai.

The outcome of this exercise formed the foundations for a strategy for post-Cyclone Idai immediate recovery interventions and long-term restoration of livelihoods and resilience building.

The UNDP Zimbabwe communications department notes that immediately after the cyclone, locals volunteered for various works, and provided materials.

“Quite a number were builders, carpenters, foremen and assistants, already. However, they further underwent some upskilling training, and worked under guidance from contracted civil engineers”, said the department in a statement.

These interventions were implemented in the eight affected districts, namely, Mutare, Nyanga, Masvingo, Gutu, Buhera, Chimanimani, Chipinge and Chiredzi, especially targeting the most vulnerable of the 50 000 households.

According to disaster risk reduction experts, early recovery is an approach that provides time for critical interventions which have the foundation for sustainable recovery and speedy return to long-term development.

UNDP Zimbabwe has also engaged the government of Zimbabwe, civil society and the private sector to augment support and mobilise additional resources including technical and raw input into reconstructing emerging livelihoods and re-establishing markets in the affected communities.

Schools of opinion and thought outside the realms of Cyclone Idai and others that have struck Zimbabwe point out that the appropriate response in a post-disaster situation is not simply the provision of financial and physical resources.

“It is also a question of unlocking and organising the energy of the survivors so that they can rebuild their lives together”, Fred Gwaimani, an expert in disaster risk reduction has said.

Collectivism in a similar situation, he said, would have a lot of potential to achieve change by making use of their power (the survivors), and in a post-disaster situation this potential will be heightened by need.

“The resources can reach beyond rebuilding housing, to chicken, goat or fish farming, organising a community development fund or addressing other needs that people have thought of in rebuilding their lives.

“According to a 2010 human settlements working paper by the International Institute for Environment and Development, giving survivors the capacity to manage their communal or community needs.

“Development and rehabilitation through the provision of flexible financial resources will gradually release their energy, which is amplified by their need to survive following the disaster.

“The critical role that relief and development agencies can play in a post-disaster situation is to understand the importance of creating space where the affected people can come together to instigate change”, a part of the paper read.

They need a platform where they can link up with other similarly affected groups, in order to rebuild their lives and their communities as soon as possible, with secure livelihoods, and where they can re-establish their rights and form new relationships within the local system, the paper noted.

“A post-disaster situation encompasses many issues, not just the question of rebuilding houses but it also brings up the question of human rights, and changes in social and political relationships,” Simwaba said.

 He pointed that there are many different dimensions to rebuilding in a post-disaster scenario, which go beyond individual households receiving starter kits.

“This opportunity can be seized right from the earliest stages of relief efforts, in the relief camps”, he said.

“If the affected persons have a chance to talk and discuss with each other, as is possible in a relief camp where all victims are re-grouped, then they can think together and express their ideas about what they want to do to recover from the disaster,” said Simwaba.

Furthermore, the discussion process itself is vital, as through it they can form a belief in what they want to do and become increasingly confident that they can achieve it themselves; that they are the agents of change.

According to Simwaba, as relationships begin to form, things begin to change. If the people who escaped death are linked together as a group they have incredible energy to work for their survival and this energy can be harnessed to improve their situation.

In fact, giving the survivors the reins to rebuild their lives is crucial and can serve as a form of therapy as people are kept busy rather than having everything done for them by the relief agencies, which might view affected people merely as pitiful and passive recipients.

  • This story was produced under the WAN-IFRA Media Freedom African Media Grants initiative